For people not immersed in tax policy or charged to oversee government programs that serve vulnerable people, the nexus between the two might be hard to discern.

“Taxation drives our capacity to respond to these issues. These are all connected,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who served 11 years as Utah’s top executive.

As Utah looks ahead at the ongoing work of serving a young population with intense mental health needs, a dearth of affordable housing and the need for tax policies that are fair and help ensure economic success, Utah leaders reflected on public policy lessons from the past quarter century during two panel discussions Friday at the Thomas S. Monson Center.

Former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who has served as state homeless services coordinator the past three years, said there are many reasons people become homeless but housing insecurity plays a key role.

“California has the highest rates of homelessness, 44 per 10,000. Mississippi, surprisingly, has the lowest rates of homelessness, 5 per 10,000. If you overlay the cost of housing on that data, with very few exceptions, they match. The cost of housing is driving an element of homelessness. It’s not everything but it centers around the stress of being insecure in your housing and one incident away facing homelessness,” said Niederhauser, responding to a panel discussion titled “Caring for those in Need.”

Niederhauser said he has observed how high levels of stress can lead to mental illness, abuse, alcoholism and substance abuse.

“Stresses in people’s lives are a huge determinant of health,” he said, during the event sponsored by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in partnership with the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Deseret News and moderated by Deseret News executive editor Doug Wilks.

Friday’s panel was part of a series of policy discussions tied to the release of former Gov. Mike Leavitt’s four volume electronic memoir, available at, that could help shape the future of Utah. The memoir, given to the public for free, can also serve as a guide for policymakers to show how government can overcome obstacles to move things forward.

Can Utah keep up with emerging AI technology?
What lessons from the past will help Utah public schools and students succeed in the future?

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who champions legislative, community and private sector initiatives to help reduce Utah’s youth suicide rate, improve mental health and make progress with services for people experiencing homelessness, said the past has “certainly set the stage for the next act.”

Unfortunately, the prologue is “fairly disheartening.” Suicide is “and has been for years, the leading cause of death for children in Utah,” he said.

Expressed another way, “So in Utah, we lose the equivalent number of people to suicide, as a 737 plane crashing every other month,” he said.

Utah has dedicated a lot of funding to mental health and reducing rates of suicide, Eliason said, “but we have so much more to invest in this area.”

That said, it’s not all about money. It’s about personal responsibility with respect to firearms.

“Most suicides are carried out with somebody else’s firearm, most children’s. If parents would just lock up their gun, that could cut our rate of suicides in half. That’s something that doesn’t cost a lot of money,” he said. Eliason said when he speaks at churches about child suicide, he gives away gun locks.

While funding helps provide services, it also helps preserve investments in human capital, he said.

“We’re releasing a large percentage of our patients from the Utah State Hospital into homelessness after we’ve just spent on average $200,000 trying to restore them to competency,” Eliason said.

Step-down services are desperately needed, particularly when one considers that 95% of the state hospital beds available in Utah in 1955 are now closed so “we’ve just reinstitutionalized so many people in our jails, hospitals and homelessness,” he said.

“If we look at the future in terms of what the next act will be, I think the states need to step up. We need to look at the system of care for step down for people coming out of our prisons, jails and our state hospitals, and that will take money,” he said.

When Leavitt was secretary of Health and Human Services, President George W. Bush tasked him to examine more than a dozen mass shootings following the 2007 shooting spree at Virginia Tech University that killed 32 people and wounded 17 others.

A team of experts across the federal government visited 13 sites where similar tragedies had occurred. “We brought all of the various constituent parties to the table to say ‘What have we learned from this?’ "

The decades-earlier move to “institutionalizing and defacilitating” mental health services was supported by conservatives who believed it cost too much money and by liberals who disagreed with with the practice.

“Between those two, they got the support to basically take the infrastructure down and then we never replaced it with anything,” he said.

As Leavitt noted, much of government’s ability to respond to societal needs and a changing economy is its tax policy.

One significant change in recent years has been a reduction in sales tax revenues while income tax revenues rise. At the same time, there has been exponential growth in services purchased by Utahns such as pet grooming, ride shares, streaming media among others, but legislative efforts to make them subject to taxation have been unsuccessful in the past.

“I’m gonna throw it out there, we have to be taxing services,” said Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, who is an economist.

“We’ve tried it a few times and it’s failed every time because it takes a lot of political courage to be able to properly address that. Or we need to just come up with a different way of taxing and getting that revenue if the sales tax isn’t going to work,” said Spendlove, who is not seeking re-election.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said tax reform efforts in the recent past were unsuccessful because of disagreements over what to tax and “making sure it’s not a double layering of tax.”

But the worst thing to do is make tax revenue less predictable, he said.

“Trying to get away from peaks and valleys and shift toward more sure revenue creates a more predictable environment for government. But at the same time, there’s a sentiment from taxpayers that feels like government needs to suffer when the people suffer, which is an interesting dynamic, really, when you think about the needs. When the economy goes down, the government sector grows just out of necessity for supporting people,” said McCay, chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee.